“These are the ten things I’ve learned to look for in a great product. I use them as an internal checklist whenever in a conversation with a founder, or giving product feedback.”
For the checklist I was inspired by the movie Miles Ahead, a directorial debut by Don Cheadle, to illustrate the grind it takes to build a great product. For the toolkit, I let the following two people who know a thing or two about the grind of building a great digital product, to do most of the heavy lifting:
- Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom, a customer communication platform: I’ve found Des to have one of the most sane approach to building and managing a product. His advice starts first after you’ve peeled off all the layers of BS and buzzwords, and are ready to sweat out the tears.
- Mikael Cho, co-founder of Crew, an invite-only community to find top freelance designers, developers, and studios: The Crew product journey that Mikael Cho and his team have gone through is an excellent showcase of intellectual honesty at work, and how building a product that both looks, feels, and seems obvious requires a lot of thought process and hard work. To quote Mikael: “The path to a good product is never pretty”. Please don’t fool yourself by mistaking the Crew process for being about creating perfect landing pages and onboarding flows. That’s merely the icing on the top.
The Toolkit For Building A Great Product
- Real Problem
- Switching Costs
- Customer-centric Development
- Core Customer Value
- Care For Details
- Privacy and Security
- Market Education
- Intellectual Honesty
1. Are You Passionate?
“Are you loving it?
Can you ever get enough of it?
Is it everything?
A love that never stops” – Neil Young, Are You Passionate?
Translated into entrepreneurial language:
“There are products that become startups, and then there are startups that try to build a product.” – Marc Andreessen, Andreessen Horowitz
Passion is like a magnet that people are drawn to: co-founders, employees, investors, and not the least, customers. A startup’s biggest hurdle is to overcome indifference, so to raise above the noise you will need a strong vision empowered by passion. Passion, combined with conviction and resilience, is also what will keep you going when no one is cheering. And just like in love, passion is hard to fake. As Jeff Bezos of Amazon says: “You don’t choose your passions, they choose you.” In case no passion has chosen you, yet, start by joining someone who has been.
2. Are You Solving A Real Problem?
Or are you merely selling soil in a can for €10? How do you know if you’ve picked a real problem to solve, and what if you’ve settled to solve a future problem? You don’t for sure until afterwards, that’s the bitch about making choices and predictions. Depending whether your problem is on the current investor “hype-cycle” list when/if you’re raising funding, you should also be prepared to have endless “Is it really that big of a problem? But is it, really?”, #NiceToHave, and cool vs. valuable arguments until you prove the world otherwise.
To get closer to determine whether you have a real problem at hand, Mikael at Crew has reserved an entire post to how to define the actual problems your product should solve before you jump on to build solutions: Start with problems. Not solutions. No problem? No product. This exercise will help you narrow down the problems, and focus on the areas of problems that will also lead to potential “wow” moments after been solved. We’ve all had those when using a product we love.
“We spent an insane amount of time focusing on latency, when no one cared, because we were hell bent on making it feel like you had all the world’s music on your hard drive.” – Daniel Ek, Spotify
The quote by Daniel Ek of Spotify is one of my absolute favorite examples regarding what problems to focus on solving. It’s an early product decision, that he credits as one of the key to Spotify’s success, as does it consist of the three elements of a great product decision:
- It was aligned with Spotify’s vision (see 3.)
- It was based on delivering core customer value (see 6.)
- It definitely went for, and delivered on, the “wow” effect
3. Does Your Product Communicate Its Vision?
“If you’re gonna tell a story, come with some attitude” – Don Cheadle as Miles Davis, Miles Ahead
Vision is an abstract word, so to really grasp why it’s so critical to have one and have your product communicate it in the best possible way, you must start by listening to Steve Jobs explaining his product focus (5min) after he returned to Apple and turned the company around. This is how crisp and clear you should be able to define and argue for your vision!
I’ve written about successful product development and how to build a product that communicates its vision, and the trouble of communicating the value of its product was also something that the team Crew faced. Mikael will walk you through the process of defining how to better communicate your vision with increased conversion as a result 🙂
“If you never said No because of your product vision, then you have no product vision” – Des Traynor, Intercom
Don’t have a vision yet? Keep breathing. Des explains in plain vanilla how to define your vision and make it matter, and he wants you to start by answering following three questions:
- In your opinion, how does the future look like in your business vertical?
- What tech trends do you want to make a bet on? (E.g. sensors, connected homes, wearables, messaging, AI, VR)
- What is the change that you want to make in the world, i.e. Why do you exist other than making money? What would inspire people to join your company and make them believe that you care enough to fight for it?
Focusing on the core vision and do one thing well is also what has helped Daniel Ek of Spotify during the past ten years, especially when facing major competition. (Would you face competition from big corporations in areas that are not within their core business, Jason Lemkin of SaaStr offers the same advice: Stay focused and keep your head down.)
“Have clarity of vision, but flexibility of the process”- Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
Keep in mind, while vision is your North Star, there’s no straight line pointing the direction. To have clarity of vision, but flexibility of the process was one of the biggest learnings that Jon Stewart took with him from The Daily Show after 16 years of consistent clarity of vision (Miss you so much, Jon). It’s an advice also echoed in the startup world: According to James Wise of Balderton Capital, a common reason why startups fail is because they build products too focused on their own vision, rather than reacting to what they see. He emphasizes to find the right balance between the ability to have vision about how the world should be, and the ability to listen on the daily basis, and to understand how to get to that vision.
4. Are You Really 10X Better Than Existing Solutions? – The Switching Costs
What in your product makes a customer to go from “I Like You” to “I Need You” to “OK!”, and make the switch? Both Des and Mikael discuss the topic of switching costs and the 9X effect, and to my great delight they couldn’t agree more on the importance of building a product that is an order of magnitude better than existing solutions.
Des has an excellent hands-on break down of the switching costs using a framework of four forces when trying to win a customer on your side. He also highlights why switching costs are particularly true for enterprise solutions, namely due the high “social cost” for the person in charge of the earlier purchase decision. It doesn’t matter if your product is way better – is that person going to risk her/his reputation and budget?
Mikael makes a great point on product excellency over marketing efforts to drive growth, also referring to the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal
“Many innovations fail because consumers irrationally overvalue the old while companies irrationally overvalue the new.” So when you release a new product for consumers, you have to be at least nine times better than the previous alternatives in order to have a chance to get users switching from the old product they were using to your product.” – Nir Eyal
Whether the 9X theory is true or a myth doesn’t really matter: The sheer amount of noise and competition on the marketplace should have you aiming to build at least 10X better product. Keep in mind, people are busy living their lives with no time to care enough to make a switch. Just ask yourself, why does a person stay in a bad relationship? Out of habit, the pain of breaking up, and switching to an unknown.
5. Are You Building Together With Me? – The Customer-centric Development
“We never think ourselves as tied to any particular technology or skill set. We think ourselves as tied to our customers and we try to work backwards from their needs” – Jeff Bezos, Amazon
Jeff Bezos has since the founding of Amazon had one focus, and successfully so: To obsess over customers. One should pay attention to competition, but always obsess over customers. Doing that will not only minimize the risk of building a Swiss army knife or a Japanese toilet, i.e. lots of features that nobody wants or uses, but it will also keep you away from destructive feature wars. To quote Des: “Don’ piss your life away chasing the trends: Make real contribution.”
As important and invaluable as it is to observe customer behaviour, so is having conversations with them. One of my favourite examples on getting customer feedback is by Konstantin Guericke, co-founder of LinkedIn (yes, it’s a grind):
“I would use every lunch I had for the first two, three years to get feedback from my contacts about their usage of Linkedin. Often there was no usage in the first years – so why are they not using it? They don’t give you the answers but they can help you understand the problem better. Your job is to come up with the answers.” – Konstantin Guericke, Co-Founder of LinkedIn
As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now: Having a customer-centric approach will get you closer to solving the real problems of your customer. The next point on the list is equally important; it will help you to stay on course by avoiding the very pitfalls of listening to your customers.
6. Are Decisions Based On Delivering Core Customer Value?
“Focus on what job the feature does for a customer. Customers only care about the value you deliver, not what category you’re in.” – Des Traynor, Intercom
It’s never just about the platform itself. It’s always about delivering core customer value. Choice of every new feature and technology platform should be a result of a decision making based on delivering core customer value. That’s why mobile isn’t really about mobile, and virtual reality isn’t about virtual reality, but whether they can better help your customers achieve their goals. New technologies that can serve your customers better, but might not seem obvious in the beginning, will always emerge, and as companies survive on growth, not stagnation, Des urges you to always be on the look for ways to better serve your customers in order to keep your product alive.
Core customer value is what your core product delivers, i.e. a feature, or set of features, that all users use all of the time. The single one question: “What features are being used by who and how?” helps you map your core product features and determine where you should allocate your time. Des covers the thinking, methods, and pitfalls of how to improve a feature, or add a new one, so that it will be aligned with your core product offering. The future costs of supporting and developing features and platforms that are not aligned with your core product can really suck the living life out of your team, and it’s always harder than you think to pull the plug once you’ve added a new feature or a platform. Remember, you define your roadmap, or the roadmap defines you.
“Where are we getting in the way of what our customers want to do?”- Mikael Cho, Crew
While mapping your product features, please run them by an extra check to identify if any of them might get on the way of delivering core customer value, because A good product never hinders. It guides.
“It’s a mobile world, design accordingly.” – Brian Solis, Altimeter Group
7. Do You Genuinely Care For Details?
“If you can be about process and not be goal oriented all the time, that to me is where you can get to the next thing.” – Don Cheadle, Director of Miles Ahead
I’ve found genuine care for details to be the most revealing quality in a founder regarding a product’s survival rate. It’s the embodiment of passion, clarity of vision but flexibility of the process, and customer-centric development approach, and it demonstrates itself in a way a founder speaks about her/his product, and how she/he seeks and reacts to feedback. It’s not about having to be a detail oriented, design, or user experience driven founder, but about a sheer, compassionate interest in your own product. There are no guarantees that things will work out even if you do care, but I’m yet to meet a founder where the opposite has been true. Typical signs of lack of genuine care for details include:
- Unwillingness to engage in a discussion around product or do demo with the sentiment of “We’re good”, or worse, the “What do you want to know? response.
- Demo hastily in defensive manner without any interest in feedback.
- The “I hear you”sentiment in response to solicited feedback.
- The neglecting “Thanks for your feedback” in response to unsolicited feedback, a nightmare scenario of any customer relations.
- All the sighs and eye-rolling I encounter when asking founders to start a demo with a sign-up process, why I love that Des goes on a 2min straight bashing over the ignorance and incredible risks you’re taking if you don’t “Put yourself in the shoes of the actual user who is trying to use your product for the first time, and knows nothing about you, your blog, or recent funding.” (Injecting your data directly into the database sounds familiar?)
Lack of genuine care for details has a trickle down effect on development process, thus increasing the risk to miss your blind spots. To avoid this, Mikael walks you through how to catch them. He also seconds Don Cheadle on the importance of process in order to build a great product in The journey is more important than the destination. While it’s an excellent example of redesigning an onboarding flow, I want you to focus on the reasoning behind every decision. That’s where the real magic happens.
8. Will You Fight For My Privacy And Security?
“I’m no expert, but this sounds like BS to me.” – Jon Stewart, The Daily Show
You’ve already heard it: Data as a platform. Even if you’re not in business of directly selling user data, most products today are dealing with personal data. This means you’re also in business of selling trust, and building trust is – everything. The recent Internet Trends Report 2016 by Mary Meeker has an extensive section regarding data and privacy, which asks the very question: “Do people care about privacy, or do they care who has their data?” According to the report, people’s biggest concerns show that they do both with emphasis on who has their data:
- 1. “If/ Where they sell my data”(78%)
- 2. “Where they keep my data” (73%)
- 3. “How they identify me as an individual” (68%)
The same pattern regarding the importance of trust is reflected by other surveys across industries:
- IoT: 47% didn’t plan to buy an IoT device because they were worried that they would expose their personal information, number-two reason after high price (62%). (Accenture survey of 28 000 people in 28 countries)
- B2B: 84% of 2 000 executives believe tech can improve work environment but only 14% would trust it. (Accenture mobility research across nine industries in 15 countries)
Actions always speak louder than words. When Tim Cook of Apple says: “Our customers trust means everything to us”, you’re willing to believe him. Most recently his words and the stand Apple has taken regarding its customers privacy and security was truly tested in the aftermath of 2015 San Bernardino terror attack. A devastating, horrible act of violence, that would also come to play a central role in the well needed broader discussion over people’s privacy in the mobile only world.
9. Are You Educating The Market On The New?
Both industry changing and industry creating products require introducing a new customer behaviour. With industry creating products, the actual market demand is yet to match the identified market need, why educating the market becomes an important ally in bridging the gap between the two. Regarding successfully changing customer behaviour, you can find all the essentials in an earlier post.
How does one educate the market?
- Demonstrate value, not features.
- Build trust, be transparent.
- Be patient. Change and building trust takes time.
Marketing material is not the same as educational material, but education is a powerful marketing tool. When you’re educating a customer, you’re helping them to understand how your product will improve their lives and businesses, and that’s also where good content marketing adds value instead of adding to the noise. Apple is the brightest star on the sky in educating its customers why they need an Apple product before even trying to sell it. Every Apple product is launched by showcasing how the product’s key features will help improve its customers lives. When it launched iPhone, both an industry changing and creating product, customers already knew how it would add value and why they needed it.
As with privacy, trust is everything when educating the market on the new. The recent first fatal accident with Tesla’s autonomous driving feature speaks loud and clear of the challenges of an industry creating category, where even when it’s easy to understand the immediate value of your product and have statistics to back it up, the need to build trust and act transparent takes the front seat: “In the face of tragic death from a new, scary technology, we do not want cold statistics. We want to understand how it happened, and why, and whether it will happen again.” Be patient. Change and building trust takes time, why you need to take your customers along on the journey. Safely.
10. Do You Have Intellectual Honesty?
“Nope. Hipster nonsense” – Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, 30 Rock
This could as well be the number one requirement on the list, and the lack of it is also a reason why so many products turn out underwhelming. Along the road you and your team will need to make endless of tough decisions about product strategy and roadmap to keep them aligned with your vision and core customer value proposition, all of which you can do with clarity only if you also have intellectual honesty, meaning: self awareness, integrity, humility, and a team without ego who passionately cares about delighting customers, i.e. solving their problem.
Intellectual honesty isn’t an off-the-shelf product with Same-Day Amazon delivery, why I’m very happy that Mikael and his team have documented The Crew product journey, so that you can up close follow intellectual honesty at work.
Needless to say, intellectual honesty is also what enables your product to grow. Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital, at the time head of growth at Facebook, credits eliminating ego and hiring A people as core factors to Facebook massive growth:
“If you constrain the problem to say there’s one thing, it forces everyone to be an expert, or to know that one thing, and then to speak intelligently and, most importantly, factually about that one thing, and so you can’t bullshit, and you can’t grind f**k people, and when you can’t do that, you actually have good decisions and you force clarity of thought. That’s hard.” – Chamath Palihapitiya
Now that you’ve come this far in building a great product, please treat yourself with one 🙂
More recommended read on your journey in building a great product and company:
- Startups, How To Avoid The Slow Death Of Irrelevance
- Key Success Factors To Reach Product/Market Fit And Scale
Paula is Digital Product Advisor and Top 100 Women in Tech in Europe, focusing on Product, Go-to-market, and Internationalization strategies. She has to date mentored over 150 digital technology companies, and rated as one of the best startup mentors in Europe. Read more about her work and personal guidelines. Contact Paula to help you build better products and drive growth. “You never learn anything when you speak, only when you listen” – Roelof Botha / Douglas Leone, Sequoia Capital. Connect on Twitter, LinkedIn.